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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that President Trump doesn’t really believe he should have left the UCLA basketball players incarcerated in China, despite his Sunday tweet expressing that exact sentiment.

“If that’s the case, he wouldn’t have taken the action that he did and certainly acted in order to help get those individuals released and brought back to the country,” Sanders said at the daily media briefing on Monday.

On Sunday, President Trump tweeted, “Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”

When pressed again about why he tweeted that if he didn’t really mean it, Sanders responded, “it was a rhetorical response to the criticism by the father. I think the President was happy to see the release of these individuals and have them back in the United States.”

The tweet came shortly after LaVar Ball, the father of one of the players who was arrested, downplayed the President’s role in releasing his son from China. “Who?” Ball said to ESPN when the outlet asked him about the topic. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”

Ball’s son LiAngelo was arrested in China in November 8 for stealing designer sunglasses in Shanghai, along with his two teammates Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. Their arrest coincided with the President’s visit to China. Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly told the New York Times that the President was instrumental in the players’ release from China because he brought it up with the country’s President Xi Jinping. The players headed home on November 14, and thanked Trump at a press conference one day later.

“I think the President, like I said, was happy to intervene I think it was less about the players then the father of one of the Americans released seemed to have a problem with it,” Sanders said. “Frankly it didn’t seem like the father wanted the President to intervene which would have been a sad thing if he hadn’t.”

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Write to Alana Abramson at

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